The following is the last in a series of excerpts from my latest book, Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, which will be published in September 2020.
©2020 Loren C. Steffy
As the COVID-19 outbreak spread across the United States in the first half of 2020, healthcare workers found themselves on the front lines of efforts to stop the pandemic’s advance. One in six of those workers was an immigrant, including almost 29 percent of physicians, a study by the New American Economy found.
Immigrants work in even higher concentrations in other segments of medicine—comprising almost 37 percent of home healthcare workers, for example. “In the areas where it is most critical, immigrants are playing even greater roles—serving as the first person you might see at the hospital intake, to nurses, to the doctors themselves,” said Andrew Lim, NAE’s director of quantitative research.
NAE estimates that some forty-five thousand healthcare workers in the United States are undocumented, most of them serving in supporting roles such as aides, laundry personnel, and food preparers. Another sixty-two thousand are DACA recipients. As virus infections surged across the country, many of those DACA workers were waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the Trump administration’s executive order to eliminate their protections, leaving them vulnerable to deportation.
“To remove healthcare workers at this critical moment in time, as healthcare needs are immense, seems to not make sense,” Lim said. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, although Trump’s promise to rescind DACA anew still casts doubt over the workers’ future.
For the undocumented, working in healthcare poses a dual risk: daily potential exposure to deadly viruses and other diseases and a lack of access to medical treatment if they get sick. The workers themselves are in danger, of course, but their situation also creates a broader peril in public health. Workers who may be infected and show up for work anyway, out of fear of losing pay or jobs, could spread the virus to others.
The pandemic brought to light the critical roles that immigrants play in the U.S. economy. They’re active in services from cleaning, to deliveries, to food preparation and supply. In the orchards of California and the fields of South Texas, agricultural workers found themselves carrying letters from their employers declaring them “essential” after the Department of Homeland Security deemed that field workers were “critical to the food supply chain.”
“It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing,” forty-three-year-old Nancy Silva, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, told the New York Times. Silva, who was working in the clementine groves south of Bakersfield, California, lives with the constant threat of deportation. The letter eased her fears, but it didn’t eliminate them.
Like thousands of other migrant agriculture workers, she is caught between the reality of America’s economic needs and the irrational vitriol of its politics. She is both essential and unwanted at the same time.
Meat packers rely on immigrant labor. As much as 50 percent of the industry’s workforce is made up of undocumented workers from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and East African nations.
As the pandemic spread across the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that 3 percent of workers in more than a hundred processing plants tested positive for COVID-19 in April 2020. That number may be low because of limited testing, CDC researchers said. Because workers in meat plants must do their jobs in close conditions and can’t distance themselves from each other, the virus has advanced more rapidly through their ranks.
As workers got sick—and at least twenty died—meatpackers faced shutdowns that threatened to create shortages in supermarkets nationwide. President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to classify meat producers as critical infrastructure to keep the processing plants running.
The industry, which like construction faced a shortage of workers before the pandemic, has raised pay and offered bonuses to healthy workers. But as more in their ranks showed symptoms of the virus, requiring a fourteen-day self-quarantine, labor shortages loomed, and the meat supply chain remained under pressure.
Further up that chain, farmers, ranchers. and other food suppliers that rely on immigrants to stay afloat have struggled as well. With restaurants and schools closed, many farmers couldn’t find markets for their goods. Some had to destroy crops. In Washington state, farmers amassed a one-billion-pound surplus of potatoes.
Dairy farmers, already facing lower prices before the pandemic, were hit hard by declining demand, dumping as much as 3.7 million gallons of milk a day, according to the Dairy Farmers of America.
Chicken processors, meanwhile, had to euthanize tens of thousands of birds because of reduced capacity at processing plants.
By early April 2020, Dallas restaurateur Jim Baron had closed his four Tex-Mex locations and laid off most of his workforce. He still kept a little money coming in with take-out service, but in the first week of the month, his revenue was just twenty-five thousand dollars, a plunge from two hundred seventy-five thousand dollars for the same week in 2019. Restaurants use current revenue to pay past obligations, so when the revenue nosedived, Baron struggled to pay vendors for deliveries they’d already made and employees for work they’d already done.
“It’s a very difficult time,” he said. “And it’s the reality facing every restaurant in the United States.”
Like the struggling meatpackers, farmers, and ranchers, Baron had many employees who were immigrants living paycheck to paycheck. Forced to lay them off, he worried that many wouldn’t return to the restaurant business when the economy recovers because they would find work elsewhere. Multiplied across other industries, the loss of jobs and businesses is likely to be devastating to America’s attempt to rebuild its economy.
“They’re really a huge contributing member of the system, and we’re going to lose that economic value,” Baron said of immigrant workers. “Once the smoke clears on this crisis, we’re going to have to rebuild, and we’re going to need [immigrants] and their work is going to be appreciated. I think they have a chance, you know, of being seen differently by the average American.”
The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic threw economic assumptions into chaos. Pessimists wonder how the United States will deal with unemployment levels that by late May approached 15 percent—the highest since the Great Depression. Will more than twenty million desperate out-of-work Americans finally accept the menial jobs they just months earlier renounced? Will those jobs even exist as businesses fail?
President Trump has already barred both legal and illegal immigrants from entering the country during the pandemic. Will he extend those restrictions and for how long? With the U.S. suffering the most cases and deaths in the global health crisis, will anyone want to come here to work if they could? Will there be better opportunities elsewhere?
“The pandemic has definitely created uncertainty,” Stan said. “But I feel like construction will rebound quickly. There is just so much demand for roads, buildings, houses, and so forth. I do think that immigration will be restricted, and we must find a way to encourage young men and women in our high schools to enter the trades. I doubt many will want to work in a job that offers no training, no benefits, no career. And I think they want to be tax-paying citizens and contribute to a better society. Fixing this broken immigration system, especially dealing in a humane way with the eleven million already here, would be a great start.”
In early 2020, construction workers were designated as essential workers. Stan Marek sees a correlation between the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the rebuilding effort to recover from COVID-19. Like Baron, he believes immigrants will be vital.
“Those of us who lived through Hurricane Harvey should remember who participated in the cleanup and rebuild of our city—mucking out houses, tearing out wet sheetrock, hauling off trash, and other ‘dirty jobs’ that no one else wanted to do,” he said. “Where would we have been without these essential workers? Now more than ever we must get serious about building a resilient workforce for the next disaster. Ignoring the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of workers in the shadows that we are relying on in time of crisis makes no sense.”
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